Tuesday, September 27, 2011

All Different Shapes and Sizes

Hey there, Spot! I know how much you've missed me. I have certainly missed you. Oh, Summer. It really does pull us apart. Recently, I was asked a few questions about 'inclusion,' so I thought I'd repost them here. I know how much you like to gnaw on THAT bone. Here are the questions, Spot, let's see if we can give it a go!

  1. What are your views on the success of including special education students in the classrooms in your school?
 2. What is your philosophy regarding inclusion? Perhaps you could comment on any benefits/challenges? 
3. Do you have any advice/words of wisdom to a future regular education teacher (like me!) regarding inclusive practices? 

Well, Spot, I'm sitting here looking at you and all of your friends, sitting here staring at me. You're waiting, each one of you having a different point of view, and a different learning need. There's the doggie sitting there with the large pointy ears. He listens well, but boy, he can't sit still! Then there's the sleepy guy, slumping and looking pretty lost. That guy's got all kinds of organizational issues, and because of that, his anxiety often flares up. There are big, tall smarty pants dogs, who know an awful lot, but can't really figure out how to get along with the other dogs. Then there are the dogs that get really hung up on routines, who fall apart when things get changed. One of those doggies can't hear very well and another needs his planner checked and the sequence of assignments arranged for him.

If you're following me, Spot, I'm sure you know where I'm going here. You, my friend, are dismissed. I know your homework's done.

Special needs are my specialty, I believe every student is an individual. I've grown up in the era of inclusion. When I student taught, though, I didn't see too many students with IEPs. As time passed and the laws changed, more and more the line became blurred...between the so-called regular education and the special education student. When I graduated from college, there were no jobs in a traditional regular education classroom. I went to work for one of the five area cooperatives in our state, teaching special needs students. From there, I decided to get my master's degree in special education. After seven years of teaching hearing impaired kids, birth to three and then running a program for language delayed students, I took five years off and stayed home with my own. In all of this...especially in my venture in motherhood, I found that no two students, not even my own little guinea pigs at home, learned in the same way. This was never a problem. It only made me strengthen my craft.

When I returned to the classroom, I had an opportunity to return to regular education. I've taught kindergarten, then second and now sixth grade and have loved all the varied faces and learning styles, the growth I've seen in education over the years. A few years ago, I was asked to include a student whose reading needs were far below those of others in my group. I know in my heart that saying no is not an option for me. On paper, this student's scores were abysmal, but I knew she was much more capable than she showed. At first, she listened, and kids in my class clearly were not too keen on her. It didn't take too long before she started moving closer to the group and sharing, but oftentimes, what she shared was a little off topic in class. She did stand out...like that cat in the large group of dogs.

Kids were watching me, though, and I knew they'd follow my lead. After the group, I'd spend a little time with her...encouraging her and letting her know she was doing a great job. Her mom started doubling up on the readings we did in class, giving her an opportunity to reread and then understand the material a little better. She had a chance to preview class conversation questions prior to class discussions, so she could rehearse a response in her mind. Kids started experiencing the miracle of inclusion...watching one young girl make a giant leap right in front of their eyes. The challenge is great...time intensive in front of and behind the scenes.

Other times, I've had kids that were included right from the start...students with a wide array of needs. But to me? They all have needs. The kids in my class will always look to me. If they can trust that I can handle all their differences, then everyone settles in and allows the learning to fall into place. I do believe it all comes down to the teacher and how he/she allows everyone a seat at that wonderful table of learning. But I have to make sure that no one stands out too much. To the best of my ability, I treat them respect, as equals, no matter what their disability.

So Spot? I know you were staring at that kitty in the class picture up there. I'd tell all teachers old or new, to give every student their space...to study them and get to know to know them well, prepare for everyone's needs each day...and then sit back and wait. The change comes, the learning happens, and miracles always occur! Inclusion broadens all our horizons. By including all, we learn and teach each other that very simple lesson...that we're all a part of the same breed!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Carrots and Sticks...Building Organization from the Inside-Out in Kids

It's that time of year, Spot. Deadlines abound! I know, I know...projects, final papers, exams. It's all a part of your life. You are not the only one, though, Spot. I'm running around like a chicken myself. (And I know that's probably not PC to say!)

I've got the China Museum projects, sixth grade mysteries (which I'm sorry to say are a little myterious to me!) and a whole host of other administrivia I've got to get done in the next ten days.

Most of the time, I'm pretty good at pacing, but sometimes the leash just gets away. With students, this can be a horrible thing. Yesterday, for example, I sat with a mom and talked about all the strategies we've put into place to bring her twelve year old up to speed. We talked about difficulties in focusing and of course other professionals talked about the usual 'executive functioning' problems he could be having too. He gets overloaded, then motivation becomes a problem as well.

The truth? More and more kids are looking a bit disastrous these days. Kids are over-scheduled, parents are over-scheduled too. But I think that just is a bit too simple for me. Ownership and accountability are the carrots that usually work. And some good explicit training is what will get them there. Last week, I had a gentle, whispering conversation with this particular young man. I asked him who he admired/saw as successful in class. I told him to study all that the successful student did...how he stacked his books, what his locker looked like, etc. But, I made sure to tell him to do this silently, the mentor student doesn't really need to know. After all, confidentiality is the key. This week, we'll talk about all that he observed.

Often, schools are asked to use external rewards, behavioral/organizational checklists to pull a student along. I can honestly say that does not work, for the same reason Daniel Pink highlights here.

Kids who struggle organizationally are frequently diagnosed with ADD/HD as well. They need to see that carrot...munch on it, and feel it deep down inside. No hokey adult-directed schemes ever seem to get them there. So now...I'm taking the short cut, the honest road, and letting them learn who they are and how they learn, and how to witness the ways to compensate for their needs. I know this, because I've lived it. And Spot? I'm not trying to get too personal here. But. I lost both my parents by age 11, so I've had to teach myself practically everything I know. I was an awful Brownie, a horrible Girl Scout, and I could never find my socks or my blouse or the beanie I had to wear on First Fridays at school. In other words, I was a disaster. But then I learned to simply watch...and follow...and learn. And then, I created a structure for myself, so I could do it all over again. (And Spot? What was the point of that beanie on first Friday, anyway?!)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Parents and Teachers: We're Actually on the Same Side!

Hello there, Spot. I know I've been away for a little while. But. Right now, my brain is spinning, so I'm back here to talk to you about a few things. A teacher's best friend? Yes, you betcha, Mister. I just love the way you SIT and LISTEN. You are a role model for us all.

Today, I had two meetings with parents of kids in our class. And, as a bonus, I had a mom waiting outside my door at the end of the day. No biggie, right? Right you are! It was perfectly fine. I was happy to see all three of them. Parents and teachers are on the same team. But, sometimes we forget that.

The current climate out in the world is busy slamming, confronting and micro-managing teachers. I have my personal bias about that. Wall Street? Well...we don't know who they are or where those people actually live. So...I do think some of the public angst has turned toward the more visible souls in the real world: teachers and government workers too. I remember an era (pre-9/11) when it was popular to talk trash about policeman too. Thank goodness our police officers have shown the world how important their jobs are.

This blog post is not another self-serving teacher rant, though, Spot. It's more about finding satisfaction on both sides of the conference table. Today's meeting was an honest, open and kind exchange between all parties who care most about the child. Trust was not an issue, because the parents could see and value all that had been done on the student's behalf. And honesty was not an issue either, thankfully. These parents were seeking the truth and prepared to hear it in order to help their child. In fact, in both meetings, parents said they didn't care if that coveted 'A' was ever attained, because they don't see learning as a competition or a reflection of who they are as parents. They simply want their child to learn well! Refreshing, but not as abnormal as some might think. When it comes down to it, parents really do know their kids best.

I appreciated what these parents were saying...they didn't want undue pressure put on their child in order to fall in the 'high range.' But shouldn't all kids have a chance for that? In my book, yes. I will never tell a parent their child can't attain an 'A'! To me, that's just an awful message to give a child. I will set my sights on helping a child set goals, map out a path and work hard in order to get there. I am not a huge advocate of grades, I think they give everyone a false sense of success and sometimes failure too. If a kid fails a test, should they generalize the thought that they are a failure? I think not. Kids should be assessed in strengths and needs. If the goal is curriculum mastery, my job is to assess where their strengths lie and how I can find the entry points to get them to where they need to go.

I'd like to pay tribute to the many parents and teachers who work together, setting their own needs aside to build a plan for student success. This kind of effort sends a strong message of support to students that everyone is pulling for them. If we are true partners at the table, we listen as much as we speak. Fine-tuning...and fine learning is always the result of this type of give and take.

And oh, Spot? On a different note, I offered Mr. L a cup of tea...and actually only made one for me. "Where's mine?" he said. I didn't HEAR him, I said. Then he just laughed. "You weren't LISTENING," he said. This listening thing is not always easy (after hours) for me!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Vacation: Letting the Learning Sink In

Oh, Spot, how I do love my time off! I love the fact that it restores me, but I especially love what it does to you. Time away creates a space, a seam reallly, in the learning. And even though I know you're not thinking about me, I'm here...on my break, thinking about you.

This year, we had an enormous amount of snow days, but our February break had already been taken away. The snow days were disruptive and unplanned for, and each and every day, we found ourselves trying to reorient ourselves in all that we'd been doing...just trying to keep our heads above the proverbial waters, I think.

Planned breaks are important, though...just like vacations out in the working world--but different. Kids are not like piggy banks, you can't just fill them to the brim. I applaud those who think that more is more and want to add days and time to the school year. They're doing the best and most obvious thing they think to be right. But...all kids need that window of creative opportunity; that seam of daylight in the mix. Brains need to process, to daydream, to allow all learning to sink in. Less is often more...and that in education is a fact! Reflection is a very good thing.

So today, Spot, here I sit. I'm pondering. I'm thinking about how far we've come and all the questions we have to explore before we go. I'm getting charged up to forge ahead in my craft. Because without this bit of fresh air, a little time away...I think we'd be a pretty dull and uncurious lot!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Autism Speaks...and all of us need to answer the call!

Years ago, when the education job market was much like it is right now, I was given the opportunity to take the alternative route to teaching. At the time, I was disheartened. My job search had fizzled, and I was stuck working at a desk in an office instead of working with kids on the frontline. And that was when my dear friend Kim called and offered me my first teaching job.

Where I worked and what I did doesn't so much matter now. Well, it does, but that's for another day. What that job led to was another job, and that is the way it goes. I became the special education teacher on a birth to three team. Supported by a group of part time professionals, occupational and physical therapists, a speech pathologist, a school psychologist and my dear friend Susan, the audiologist, I visited 35 babies each month. My days were filled with home visits, tender moments with stressed moms and lots and lots of playtime with little wiggily, but beautiful babies on the floors of their many varied homes.

That first job that connected the dots to the baby program was working with hearing impaired preschoolers. I learned not only to sign, but how language emerged when circumstances were different for kids. With the babies, my learning curve continued, I studied language emergence in other ways and watched what happened when development did not follow the 'normal' learning curve. I saw little ones with seizure disorders, cerebal palsy, spina bifida, down's syndrome, and accumulated a multitude of memories that remain with me even today.

But when Autism Awareness Week rolls around every year, I think about a sweet little blonde-haired boy. His pale blue eyes were fixed on the stars, or so it seemed to me. I'd come visit twice a week, yet he wasn't really connected to me...or so I thought. But somewhere, somehow, we developed a kind of routine. He lived in a beautiful home, largely decorated in white with tile everywhere, or so it seemed to me. His mom, a very young and beautiful woman, was lonely and overwhelmed. Alex was a runner. His engine was going all the time. He never crawled...and from the time he was about nine months, he pulled himself up and was on the move all the time. He had no radar for danger, so she had to watch him constantly. Alex was a cranky baby, tactile defensive, which meant that strange textures like towels and rugs would set him off and make him cry uncontrollably. Certain foods offered problems for there were texture issues inside his mouth as well. Over time, I grew to love spending my time with Alex. Of all my babies, he was a bit older and would go off to preschool as soon as he was 2.8, for that was the law at the time. I learned to follow his lead and occasionally toss a few surprises his way. He began to notice me and eventually, he sat down and played. He put a little foothold on the ins and outs of my toys...we worked on 'cause and effect' and built a little language and social interplay too.

But the thing that I remember most was his mom, Julie...and just how overwhelmed she was, and how much she needed a break. In early visits, she was watchful and untrusting...certain I couldn't keep myself inside Alex's head, watching the horizon for him. Eventually though, she let go just a little bit--she let me take over so she could wash the dishes or even just sit and relax upstairs.

Later, Alex grew in his ability to stay with my toys...he loved when that bag came into the house. Of course, sometimes he'd take out all the toys and throw them all over the place. It gave his mom a few minutes to have an interaction with me. We'd talk and keep a steady gaze on him. Because...that was what she needed, and that was what was most important for me to learn. Autistic children make all of us earn our stripes, pay careful attention and cherish every milestone they make. Parents of autistic children need love and support--because their job is incredibly large! My hat goes off to all the many moms of autistic little ones out there today!

You, and all the parents of special needs babies, are the heroes in the parent world...you do earn your stripes with new and daunting challenges each and every day! And even though you may feel that you're living a much more prescripted, marginalized life? There are many of us who know...who care and who may not live in your shoes--but we keep you in our prayers each day.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Think Green!

Well, hello there, Spot. I know I've ignored you a bit in the past few weeks. But today? I was thinking about you! Honest.

I was pulling up toward school, and a big old yellow bus got in my way. I was sticking out in the intersection, mostly because a) I had no place to go, and b) I could not go through that bus! And that's when it happened. A mama, leaving school in her shiny black car leaned on her horn and started screaming at me...well, her window was closed, Spot, but she was turning super red in the face. Then, OMG. She lifted a very bad finger and showed it to me. I was a little shocked Spot, in fact I was horrified. I hope you were not watching Spot, and if you were, I hope you put those little doggie paws up to your eyes.

I'm thinking she's got the winter blues and needs just a little bit of green. Jeesh. It's crabby out there! But then I started thinking about all you little Spots, and how crabby it might be at home too. So Spot, tonight, I want you to go home and do your homework, and offer to do the dishes and put them all away. I want you to read and play quiet. And just for tonight, send a little love out into the world!

Today is day five of the green challenge! Anybody in? I've worn green for five days now, and I still have three more days to go. One of the kids told me he was wearing green today, but he just couldn't show me! Whoa! That's where I draw the line! There are some things you just don't want to know!

I'll be back tomorrow, Spot. It's CMT week, so I have no correcting to do (yeah, right!).

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

An American Call to Test

It's March, the month of the annual writing championship (aka 'the PROMPT'), and as of Tuesday, it was finally done! Are they smarter than they were in fifth grade, well I guess we'll find out for sure.

The Connecticut Mastery Test, the other March Madness...is finally underway. For anyone outside the States, this means our testing season has begun. For the next two weeks, kids are being tested in reading, writing, math and some in science too. For the past two days, our kids have had a forty-five minute essay writing assessment (the writing prompt) and an hour of editing and revising as well. And now, after two long months of unrelenting snow, closed schools and frequent delays, we're pretty sure we've squeezed in just enough learning to ensure our students succeed...I think.

But on Tuesday? My nerves were a little on edge. Just as they were about to put that pencil to the page, a litany of ideas started rattling around inside my teaching brain. Anecdotes, quotes, similes/metaphors, statistical information, what else did I think they really could use? What have I missed out on this year? But then, I watched them creating boxed lay-outs, webs and bulleted execution plans. I'd taught how to plan out each of the component parts, and I spent time modeling my own plan too. The second thing I worked on this year, was stamina. Writers must write regularly in increasingly long spaces of time.

When the period was up, I strolled around the room, eyeballing each student's work. Every student had a minimum of two and many had three pages written in just under forty-five minutes and most wrote right up to the end. Of course, I have no idea what the level of content is, but if I adhere to my previous assumption, generally longer tends to earn a better score.

In my earlier teaching years, I didn't want to overwork the plan for fear that I'd stifle creativity! I sometimes laugh at the way I thought back then. Yes...they were creative, but did I not see all the pointless, wandering trails? Today, I'm satisfied. I started this year with many able writers, but many were compromised as well. I tend to shy away from the 'one size fits all' teaching, spending many long hours in small conferences, catching kids on the way to lunch or during their reading time. I kept it casual, but I kept it specific as well.

Many disparage these high stakes test, and I certainly can understand why. Millions of dollars go into them, test variation among states is incredible, and the pressure on staff and students is great. And while I'm not a fan of lock-step teaching/learning, I am glad that I live in a state where standards and expectations are high enough to ensure that students can and will succeed.

As March turns to April, we'll move on to the finer art of writing poetry and believe it or not, fictional short story in the form of mystery writing (a new state requirement) too! We don't expect our kids to become novelists necessarily, but it is a well-established fact, that the more varied opportunities you have to hook them as writers, the more strength and creativity they'll show overall.

Now, I'd like to see a fresh approach to ensure the students in America's cities will have an equal opportunity to be creative and experience the same learning opportunities too.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Teach Smart: Tangible Ways to Improve Student Writing

Well, good afternoon, Spot! You're looking like quite the intellectual with those new trendy glasses of yours! I'm glad to see you're in there editing and revising your latest CBAS entry! That PEG sure can score at lightning speed. The uncanny thing about her, Spot? Is that she is not too far off the mark from my scoring and the scoring of other teaching friends of mine.

Recently, I posted a lesson plan, I'd like the writing teachers and/or parents to see. The other day, I took the time to teach my students to 'get a visual/quantifiable' understanding of what the scoring on CBAS or my rubric scoring might actually mean. Following that, I gave them some strategies to help. Here's a little look into what we accomplished that day:

How do I apply writing process/writer’s workshop principles in other forms of demand writing? Recognizing the things that I know as a writer and transferring it to: 1) demand/’quick writes’ and 2) revising my work?


Up to this point students have worked in CBAS as a parallel assignment at home, writing for 15 minutes or more each night, and crafting a response to a prompt at home.

In the classroom, students are working on a feature article. In a series of short mini-lessons each day, they have learned how to plan (“What’s in Your Wallet?”), how to pack (“Touching the Specifics”) and how to insert research (“Listing Facts, Then Crafting them into Your Piece”).

All the while, parallels have been drawn in an explicit manner to show kids how this genre transfers to the writing prompt on the CMTs, to the CBAS home work they are doing, to the college essay or an essay that they’d be asked to write in order to attain a job.

Today’s objective:

Students will visually scan and mark-up their work to give it balance: paragraphs equal in size and/or sentences that vary in length, based on the following assumptions about good writing:

*Length is strength! If your work is not long enough, you haven’t sold your idea to your reader. (In truth, some writers are able to get to the point in a quick and clear manner. But more often, ideas need to be drawn out in a longer text.) Your purpose is to take the seed of an idea and help it grow in the reader’s mind. If your piece is short, your reader’s understanding will be limited.

What to do: look at your work and physically touch each line as you count how many lines in your piece. Write the number in pencil in the lower right hand corner.

Canvas students for their responses to create a range with no judgment.

*Ideas are balanced. This means your ideas are packed in tight, specific paragraphs. Remember how we packed our ideas for our feature article? Each paragraph, including the introduction and the conclusion should have a minimum of four sentences inside.

What to do: scan the sentences with your finger. Write the number of sentences in the lower right hand corner underneath each paragraph.

NO PARAGRAPHS? No problem! It’s important to indent as a sixth grader/to shift each time you move into one of your three focus ideas. Be sure to get into that habit! It makes revising your piece much easier.

(For those viewing this with horror in the outside arena...yes, we still have sixth graders who are missing this critical skill. It can often make for very confused writing. But we must proceed with caution, these are often our most fragile writers.)

What to do: take your pencil and draw a vertical line along the left side of the margin, stop when you need to shift into a new paragraph and mark it with the paragraph symbol.

*Sentence lengths should vary. Just as we’ve done with the ‘feature article’ in Writer’s Workshop, we’ll do right here in CBAS—study your sentences. Go in and trace a line underneath each sentence in your first paragraph. Some sentences should be longer, others should be shorter in length. You should have a nice mix of long and short. You can easily see the ‘shorties and the longies’, but if you’re having a hard time with that—think…4 or 7 words=equals a shortie, and longies=7 or above. You’ll see it right away!

Talk to the other writers in your cluster grouping about what you notice inside your piece. Make a list in your mini-lesson notebook of two things you’d like to change.

How to fix any of the imbalance in your piece:

*Balance of ideas: if you have shorter paragraphs, or if your piece is short in length, you should go in and take the mini-lesson on support. WHY? Your ideas are not completely developed. You may need to add some strong proper nouns, or create a one sentence connection to make your reader understand what you are talking about (an illustration…your idea in action.)

*Sentence length: If your sentences don’t vary in length, your piece will not have the fluent sound of someone talking. That is what you really want here. You need to speak on the page the way you speak in the classroom. Too many short sentences sound robotic. Too many longer sentences can confuse the reader by bogging them down in either over-stating (repeating yourself) or too many unnecessary words (too chatty!). Take a mini-lesson on sentence structure and/or mechanics.

Your job now is to go into your work, you’re already logged in, and start to take your ideas right from the page to the computer. Always reread the section you want to ‘perform surgery’ on, so you can warm your brain to make the right decision. When you are finished, be sure to save your work, so you can work on it some more at home.

CLOSURE: We’ll close in the same way we always do…asking ourselves two questions: 1) What have I accomplished with this piece today? 2) What is my work for next time?

A footnote: Upon reflection, this lesson was a lot to take on in one session. All good ideas, but too much for a sixth grade class in one sitting. What I've done though, is give them a tangible overview, an understanding of the what and why of scoring, and a hands-on way to make changes in their work. The next time I see them, I'll crack open each of the principles: show them student work that is shorter in length and discuss what an undeveloped piece offers. I love this lesson! I follow it with an 'Extreme Makeover' lesson, something we can break apart and brainstorm and then come back together and work on together.

Why does this model work? Well, honestly, there are no quick fixes in writing! Writing is a process that takes years of non-judgmental coaching, and lessons to achieve student success. The hope should be that each writer will, in fact, progress under my tutelage. So I know I have to get a leg-up with each one of them this year! I do think this instant self-scoring, CBAS program is a great tool. But it is one that could certainly raise concerns and suspicions for sure. So to each of you out there using it in the trenches--be sure parents and students as well know that you are doing a heap of background work to support it in the classroom. Otherwise it could succumb to public misinformation and then tank-out for sure! For now, for this teacher? It's working, and with no data as yet, I still believe it will boost skills like never before.

Happy writing, Spot! And happy teaching of writing to all my colleagues out there in the teaching world!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Teaching in my Pajamas

Okay, Spot...you can stay home AGAIN today. The roads are icky and it's snowing like nobody's business out there!

About ten years ago, my teaching buddies and I used to joke about a day when we'd be able to 'mail-it-in' so to speak. I know, that sounds harsh, and believe me, I'm not that kind of teacher, you know that Spot! You're just so cute I have to have face-time with you!! But...

All this snow? It does nothing for continuity of instruction, consistency in learning and actual daily practice on your part, Spot. Take that little yellow ball sitting there on the floor alongside you. You're a master at the bounce-catch, the roll and toss and any other number of tricks. You have practiced for countless hours outside and inside the house. When you're obsessed about learning the learning happens. Perseverance, long term practice, that's what it takes.

So...right now, you and the rest of the doggies are all hooked up for bad weather. I'll be sitting here in my jammies, and no doubt you will too when that next huge storm rolls in. Last week, you were home researching on Expert Space, Grolier's online research program that is leveled to match any reader's needs. This week, it's CBAS, a computer-based writing program set up by the state of Connecticut allowing students extensive time in drafting and revising prompted writing, so you can challenge yourself in writing at home...or in school.

Why, Spot, would I the writer/writing teacher want you working in this formatted/timed way?
Well, writing is a personal process. In the classroom, we'll be working on longer, more detailed process writing. I do believe in the human hand in critiquing written work...it is the MOST important way to improve a kid's work. I know for sure, I've made the greatest improvement with input from my writing mentor, Patricia Reilly Giff and the six members of my critique group. But, as you know, I can't be there every minute of every day. Practicing and getting feedback in a more regular way will really help you to take a huge leap!

So, tomorrow, Spot? When the snow is piling up outside? You and I will be inside writing, and when you click 'submit', that feedback will come back to you in a blink of an eye!